You know how, after finishing an especially great book, you miss the characters as if they were real people in your life? That happened to me after reading Kristin Hannah’s 2008 bestseller Firefly Lane. Tully and Kate, the two protagonists of the story, were as real to me as my three best friends from college. So you can imagine then how excited I was to hear that Netflix had created an adaptation of Firefly Lane starring Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke. I had missed my girls so much! I just finished watching the first two episodes and … meh.
No magic. Every aspect of the deep, layered story felt glossed and shallow. When will I learn? The book is always better (Ok, almost always. Psycho, Forrest Gump, and The Silence of the Lambs are examples where the adaptation beat the book, but they are outliers.
I turned to neuroscience to help me understand why picking up a book feels so much richer than streaming its adaptation. In 2013, a Japanese study examined the effects of watching television on children’s brains, considering the amount of time spent watching and its long-term effects. The study concluded that the more TV the kids watched, the thicker the parts of their brain associated with arousal, anxiety, and aggression became. The frontal lobe also thickened, which is known to lower verbal reasoning. The area of the brain associated with language shrunk in direct proportion to the amount of television watched.
Streaming services are designed to be passive. After switching on your show, you can just sit back and watch everything unfold without any effort on your part. You’re less likely to pause to reflect on what’s happening. In fact, autoplay is the default setting for streaming platforms, so as one episode or show ends, a new one starts automatically. We often watch several episodes before we come out of our binge-induced stupor. Many times, we only stop when we have completely overloaded our visual processing circuits. Our brain literally shuts down. This doesn’t happen when reading.
TV also presents ideas and characters on a surface level. Shows don’t have the luxury of describing or explaining situations or backstory in great detail, since they need to keep viewers visually entertained. TV programs are fast-paced in order to keep people from switching.
Books, on the other hand, are a more proactive form of entertainment and learning. The reader has to concentrate on what’s being said and to think through concepts in the book. When we read, we’re forced to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps.
Books also have the advantage of being able to describe everything in greater depth. While television is mostly composed of dialogue between characters, books can provide commentary or walk readers through scenes and characters’ internal thoughts or motivations. Brain studies using MRIs suggest that reading novels transports us into the body of the protagonist, lighting up the areas of the brain associated with empathy, gratitude, and emotional intelligence. This also fires the areas in the sensory cortex, where our motor control lies. For example, reading a book about hiking in the woods activates the same brain areas as physically hiking in the woods. This escalated neural activity lasts for days after reading, suggesting a more permanent brain reshaping.
In short, books stay with us longer than movies or television shows in ways beneficial to our overly stressed and overloaded brains.
But, sadly, this column probably isn’t going to be enough to convince many of you to pick up a book. According to the National Digest of Education Statistics, Americans aged 15-44 spent less than 10 minutes a day reading in 2020. 27% of adults in the US didn’t read a single book in 2018. These stats make me want to cry.
But what if I told you that most of the benefits of reading can be gained by simply reading for 6 minutes a day? Six minutes is a fifth of a single thirty-minute television episode. A mere 240th of your day! Even better, you can gain those benefits without giving up your favorite shows. Research indicates that even short amounts of reading can quickly even out the visual overload of a nightly Netflix binge.
What I’m saying is this. There is high quality programming to be had (Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso spring immediately to mind). But you don’t have the watch the entire season in one sitting. Watch an episode – or two – and then pick up a book and try to get lost in a way that builds a better you.